An Hour with Naftali Bennett: Is the Right-Wing Newcomer the New Face of Israel?

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image: Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, poses for a portrait at his office in the central Israel city of Petah Tikva, Jan. 10, 2013.
Oded Balilty / AP for TIME

Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, poses for a portrait at his office in the central Israel city of Petah Tikva, Jan. 10, 2013.

Before Israel’s election campaign actually began, the bright new star of the coming campaign was decreed to be Yair Lapid, a strikingly handsome and reassuringly articulate anchorman and newspaper columnist. Already known to the Israeli public, Lapid had the freedom to create a party, Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) that took aim at the dead center of the Israeli electorate, where historically elections are won or lost.  He did that, spent months in living rooms talking to people who knew him only from television, and then, when the campaign officially began in November, ended up in the same place as the rest of the Israeli political establishment – watching a man named Naftali Bennett become the center of attention.

Bennett, 40, is the former commando and hi-tech entrepreneur who heads the Jewish Home party, a political organization that predates the founding of Israel, but that’s been on the periphery of its politics for decades. Polls show that, through December, it surged into third place, gathering support almost entirely at the expense of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party. The erosion came even though Netanyahu had linked Likud on the ballot with the Yisrael Beinteinu (“Israel Is Our Home”) party of ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman in hopes of creating an electoral fait accompli.

(MORE: Behind the Story: TIME’s Karl Vick Discusses Israel’s Upcoming Elections)

As my magazine article in the new issue of TIME points out, Netanyahu remains almost certain to return as prime minister after the Jan. 22 election. But the story of the election has become how the incumbent spent most of the campaign furiously battling an unexpected challenge from a right flank that had become suddenly exposed despite his embrace of Lieberman. Israel is moving to the political right even faster than Netanyahu calculated, and cannot be expected to slow down. The surge toward Jewish Home is the best evidence of that. Its strength comes mainly from young voters, Jewish Israelis who polls have long shown are more nationalist and more right-wing than their parents. And those same polls show more than half of Israelis consider themselves right wing.

Bennett spoke at length about this phenomenon in the hour I spent with him on Jan. 1, in his office in his campaign headquarters in a high rise in Petah Tikva, northeast of Tel Aviv. He talks about the advantages of running a ”trickle-up” campaign on Facebook, the lesson in candor he learned watching Barack Obama, his surprise that his clever campaign video sketching a plan to annex the West Bank (because peace talks are pointless) went viral, and why he was “pretty worried” that his insurgent campaign was peaking too soon. The full transcript appears below.

We had met several times before, the first time shortly after I arrived in Israel in 2010; we spent a day touring Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Bennett was then executive director of the Yesha Council, the political representative for the nearly 400,000 Israelis who live beyond the Green Line that marked Israel’s border before the 1967 war, when Israeli troops began occupying the Palestinian territories conquered in just six days.

The settlers are no one thing: They include the strictly religious ultra-Orthodox who try fervently to keep the modern world at bay. There are many secular Israelis who settled beyond the Green Line because the government subsidized their lives there, which can be quite comfy. But the archetype is the “ideological settler,” the religious nationalist who is identified first by his colorful knit yarmulke or kippa and, second, by his determined look.

(MOREWhen Palestinians Use Settler Tactics: A Beleaguered Netanyahu Responds)

Religious nationalists may be the most motivated people in Israel. Their faith is Orthodox and their nationalism is grounded in the belief that the Old Testament passages referring to the Land of Israel amount to a deed. Like many Israelis they took the stunning victory of the Six-Day War as God’s indication they should have the West Bank forthwith, which Israelis call by the Biblical names Judea and Samaria. The difference is they are more inclined to act on that belief. Many speak openly about “taking over” Israel,  assuming the key positions in the military and government once held by kibbutzim—the children of the socialist, quite secular collectives that produced Israel’s founding generation. Already, the nationalist religious bloc wields influence far beyond its numbers, which is perhaps 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population.  Analysts say this is only partly because of their own efforts. The other part is the gradual retreat of Israel’s secular majority from engagement in public life.

Says Lapid, whose party has been registering fourth or fifth in pre-election surveys: “In the land of ambivalence, those who are determined will flourish.” TIME’s interview with Bennett follows below:

When you spoke to the Foreign Press Association a year or so back, while still director of the settler’s council, it seems like you laid out the themes for what became your campaign.

BENNETT: What did I say?

MOREThe West Bank’s 2012: The Year of the Israeli Settlement

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